Book cover: The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters (text on red background with small grey silhouette of a woman going up stairs)Doctor Faraday has been obsessed with Hundreds Hall since he was a child. Now he’s the Ayres’ family doctor, watching as the crumbling Hall devours their fortune, their sanity and their lives. As strange and threatening events multiply, Faraday insists on rational explanations. Is he right? Or will Hundreds Hall be the death of them all?

I first encountered Sarah Waters through Tipping the Velvet, her steamy Victorian lesbian romance. With her lush prose and eye for detail (yes, okay, and the rest) she had me at hello. I gobbled up Fingersmith (thumbs up to The Handmaiden, the Korean reimagining of that book, by the way), and have been meaning to get to the rest of her back list for some time. Spooktastic Reads was the perfect excuse to pick up Waters’ Gothic novel, The Little Stranger.

Waters is on record as saying she didn’t mean to write a ghost story – she wanted to explore class conflict and the social upheavals of the post-war period. Adding in a haunted house was a way to encapsulate the paranoia and tension. That said, once added, she certainly embraced the Gothic opportunities with gusto: expect moving objects, inexplicable noises, and spontaneous combustion. For starters.

But the power – and for me the joy – of The Little Stranger is in its restraint. It’s narrated by steadfast rationalist Doctor Faraday, who interprets everything through the lens of attention-seeking girls, dodgy plumbing and PTSD. Faraday is a dull, middle-aged country doctor with little money and no imagination. He’s far more worried about the impending National Health Service than things that go bump in the night (it was jarring to be reminded that the NHS really is this young; and I appreciated that while Faraday is anti-NHS, the narrative deliberately illustrates who the NHS will benefit in spite of his disdain).

Faraday is summoned to Hundreds Hall to treat the new maid, Betty; he diagnoses her with nothing worse than a fit of self-pity, although he covers for her to earn his fee. Betty is the first to suggest that the house is creepy, but he knows she is simply unused to such a big, quiet house. Her imagination is running wild. Even though I knew this was a book about a haunted house, I found myself nodding along. Hundreds Hall isn’t scary, Betty. It’s just not like home. The longer we spend there, the more reasonable this seems. It’s just a big old house with some fittings that seem macabre to the modern eye, but make perfect sense in context (I blame Jeannette Ng for softening me up with  her recent musings on haunted house tropes).

Meanwhile, Faraday becomes the family doctor and something of a family friend. He has experience of pioneering electrical treatments, and equipment that can help soothe Roderick’s war injuries. In spite of his resentment of the upper-class Ayres, he treats Roderick for free – hoping to win favour with the district’s notables, and relishing the chance to spend more time at Hundreds Hall.

But the Hall’s peace is shattered when a terrible accident leaves a child horribly scarred. The already fragile Roderick takes it particularly badly, relapsing into depression and mania. Faraday finds himself indispensable, treating Roderick’s mental condition as well as his physical ailments, and becoming a confidant to Roderick’s worried sister Caroline. Where would they be without Doctor Faraday?

But as odd events multiply, Faraday refuses to entertain the concerns the family bring to him. Of course they’re rarely honest with each other, let alone with him – but when they are, he dismisses them. It creates a claustrophobic, febrile atmosphere. I felt the threat more acutely than the characters, who are far too willing to be reassured. The horrors to come become as unavoidable as Brexit, and both sceptical Faraday and the stubborn Ayres – who refuse to leave the Hall – are equally complicit.

While I have a pantomime love for yelling ‘it’s behind you’ at the page, this slow-burning drama won’t be for everyone. For one thing, the tension is terribly uneven. After all, this isn’t meant to be a horror story – it’s a novel deploying its Gothic trappings to explore the decline of the landed gentry and the discomfort of class transformation; so it spends as much time on its characters and their social context as it does on its Hammer House of Horror.

Further, Faraday is rarely in the house when events take place and so he – and we – hear about them second hand. This is inevitably makes the action feel less immediate than if he were present. This didn’t bother me in the slightest. I know I’m a wimp, but I actively appreciated the way this moderated the tension (I love The Woman in Black but I don’t deal with it very well).

I also loved the book’s dedication to ambiguity. Waters deliberately leaves matters open to interpretation (unlike Lenny Abrahamson, who couldn’t resist ending his largely-faithful film without making his opinion clear). Each reader will likely have their own take on what happens at Hundreds Hall: I’m quite clear on what I believe – it’s a saving grace in an ending which might otherwise leave me raging.

Because there’s plenty to get angry about in The Little Stranger. I’ve rarely (if ever) loved a book so much whilst disliking its narrator so intensely. Faraday is deeply self-interested and has a chip on his shoulder the size of the king oak. He’s also sexist as all hell. Fully committed to his middle-aged, resentful POV, Waters gives us unflattering details at Caroline’s every appearance, uncharitably contrasting her with the fading glamour of the beautiful Mrs Ayres. To Faraday – at least when we first meet him – a woman’s utility is in her beauty and teenage girls like Betty are untrustworthy creatures who will do anything for attention. Waters writes a merciless male gaze, before she gradually sets about deconstructing it.

As with the matter of whether Hundreds Hall is haunted, we’re not meant to take Faraday’s word at face value; just as we’re not expected to simply accept his perceptions. But he is our sole point of view – he never questions himself, so it’s on you as a reader to second-guess, to question – and to draw your own conclusions.

Dodging specific spoilers, those seeking a happy ending should leave Hundreds Hall to crumble under its ivy. Those who are drawn by oppressive gloom, dark desires and uncertain outcomes should push open the rusting gates and relish the horrors that await them within.

★★★★★

For the record, I think the film is excellent – so faithful I can’t judge whether it succeeds on its own merits, precisely because I’ve read the book so I can fill in the blanks. It captures the decay and faded glories of the Hall; it accelerates the pace to run under two hours (although I don’t entirely agree with some of the cuts made to achieve that pace; particularly concerning Roderick). My companion loved it for being creepy and atmospheric, but came away slightly confused. 

Content warnings: self-harm, suicide, animal attacks, incidental racism